Thursday, December 12, 2019

LYN LIFSHIN RIP

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I've heard from what others have posted that Lyn Lifshin, a very good poet I've read for sometime, has passed away. I haven't located more details, but I will offer instead that she was a wonderful lyric poet, with sharp observation shown in spare but powerful images, with a frame of mind to observe, contemplate and find parallels between ideas and objects that wouldn't inhabit the same sentence. Her poetry was not skeletal, not minimalist, it had rhythm , pace , a real pulse , but it was not cluttered; her best poems had the remarkable resonance of one those things a friend says to you in passing, a story, a notion, something that was observed, something actually uttered , which had the accidental genius of having the right words for an idea that could just as easily been talked to death. Lifshin was a remarkable poet, and we are poorer both as readers and poets alike for the loss of her. Two poems:

MOVING BY TOUCH


that afternoon an
unreal amber
light 4 o'clock the
quietness of
oil February blue
bowls full of
oranges we were
spreading honey, butter
on new bread our
skin nearly touching
Even the dark wood glowed


BUT INSTEAD HAS GONE UNDERGROUND

A woman goes into the subway,
and for what reason
disappears behind rails
and is never heard from again.
We don't understand this.
She could have gone to the museum,
had cappuccino with a lover.
But instead has gone down the
escalator, without i.d., or
even a ticket and not
for clothes or flowers. It was
a grey humid day,
very much like today.
It was today. Now you might
imagine I'm that woman, it
seems there are reasons.
But listen, I don't live
anywhere near that metro stop
and who I am is already
camouflaged behind
velvet and leather

Thursday, December 5, 2019

WHAT IS HIP?

Among the miscellaneous debris, The Seventies have given rock and roll is the chance for a new artist to regurgitate and, at times, imaginatively retool the many over-incubated cliches of Pop and rock music.Older critics who long for their youthful heyday (first cigarette, first sexual encounter, first visit to the doctor’s office without informing one’s parents) as something in the vanguard of the movement, a ...fresh and invigorating voice that outlines the future of rock and roll.. ." We seem stuck in a state, perhaps permanently, where we have given way to unavoidable nostalgia and have taken to wallowing in recollections of an Ideal Past. 

This is Fall-From-Grace stuff, a perverse funk for a generation that barely has the right to call itself middle age; as it has for some years now, we continue to search for the next Dylan, the new Hendrix, the next Beatles; overpraise and hypercritical rejection are the two polarities the new blood is greeted; the middle position did not hold in these surmising discussions. Bruce Springsteen combines elements from Phil Spector records, old rhythm, and blues tracks, and basic 4/4 backbone of rock and roll, wrapping a Dylanesque, free-associating surrealism around it. The result is a pastiche of styles that sounds forced.The motivation is obvious to a disinterested observer, but Springsteen’s movements do not move me beyond recognizing that he is influences will remain hipper than he could hope to be. 

What constitutes the ephemeral, mystically conferred essence of hip on someone, I admit, is a mystery that is and will remain the subject of engrossing discussions and debates that will not find a resolution. But I know it when I see/hear/read it, and Bruce Springsteen appears fated to remain an earnest hipster, another face in the chorus protesting the same hard knocks and cold soup. Patti Smith wants to merge early Sixties rock, all Stones and "Louie Louie" with the legends of dead poets, sounding in the end merely silly. Tom Waits combines black jazz hep jive with Jack Kerouac and sounds stupid.From this parade of pretenders, the more jaded among us are leery of anyone trying the same thing. My Aim is True by Elvis Costello, takes one by surprise. Like Springsteen, the backbone 01 Costello's music is old rock and roll. But apart from that, they differ radically. Springsteen has a tendency to stretch his material to the breaking point, pouring crescendo upon toughness, and Costello's sing• crescendo. verse upon verse, ing, similar to Springsteen's trying to create an epiphany but more tactful, is full of that never culminates into pro- buoyancy, emotion, and conviction.

 Costello, though, is without any overkill. What he loves about tin pan alley, the Brill Building, the hack songwriters of all callings, genres, convictions, was their mastery of craft. Mr. Costello knows when to be poetic and deliver a sequence of lyrics that manage to weave narrative elements and spare details that contain a beginning, middle, and end, his poetry, though influenced by Dylan and John Lennon, is under control; he doesn’t mistake a verse as an occasion for wildly opaque analogies, but for vivid items that logically follow one another in tone, temper, plot; one might not make sense of the songwriter’s word use, but you have a sense of the narrator’s situation, an element that makes this artist’s songwriter all more seductive and alluring. The stripped down to a vernacular (songs number twelve in all on the disc, unusual for a rock disc, and each exists as polished lyrical gems of a cynical, penetrating working-class intelligence. Costello's strength, a virtue that Springsteen, Smith and Waits lack, is his ability to use rock cliches for their full value. Instead of brandishing them like a set of museum pieces that one is supposed to bow to in historical awe and respect, Costello gets the heat to the meat. The make takes ownership of them and does with them as likes. 

The rockabilly stuff is done with a verve that equals Buddy Holly, his use of reggae captures the required anguished, sinister mood, and his boogie material does a lot more than plot the course for the band. His lyrics, though, are imbued with a seventies sensibility, an awareness of absurdity works minor miracles with the clichés. Though not notable for originality or innovation, My Aim Is True is an honest piece of work, and Elvis Costello has an intelligence that can develop into something more complex and rewarding. My Aim, for now, suffices as an excellent example of how old forms may be revitalized, even reinvented from scratch, with the basic elements and energy renewed, if for a time, and be metaphorically capable of making the vulgarity , self-seeking and tangible afflictions that make life a cruel waiting room all melt into air and make you happy for the voice you hear next to you and the voice he or she is singing, grateful for the breath your taking, and feeling fully alive , if briefly, knowing that you and yours are not the only ones seeking transcendence. That is what great art does, if briefly.




Wednesday, November 27, 2019

PUNK CRITIC JOHN SIMON CROAKS

Image result for john simonJohn Simon, America's meanest critic is dead at age 93. It will be noted over and over that he was of high IQ and sublime erudition, quite, quite fluent in the popular arts, low, middle and high. Though his writing had genuine mean wit--he was on occasion a remarkable phrase-maker--and his prose very often was drenched in knowing references to poets, novelists, philosophers and composers, I rarely discerned a discussion of the artist or their medium that rose above the provincial.For all the interior decoration he gave his critiques with the names and words of genuine thinkers, Simon's judgements were the worst sort of offensive, which was that of being dull-witted despite admirer's praise for his rumored brilliance. I say this as someone who read him for decades--there is a generation of literary, film and music critics I've followed because criticism is something I regard as artful and crucial when it's done well-- when I assert that the man's mind, despite the high-octane breadth, was flat footed. For a man who was feared, feted, loathed, lionized and called every name available in a shelf of obscene books, indeed, for a man consistently employed solely to render harsh pronouncements on the work of artists, it's despairing to think that his cut-rate skills  as a critical intelligence were regarded as hoity-toity, brainy, egghead stuff. In truth, Simon, as a man who was supposed to make you consider aspects of creative expressions in ways that go beyond the cliche, the platitude, the generalized sarcasm, was a mediocre critic.

His analysis was peculiarly pedestrian. His was the most useless sort of criticism, a style that was noisy, aggressively mean spirited, freakishly untouched by an illuminating idea. Ordinarily I would say some tactful remarks about recently passed writers whom I read quite a bit of,but those readers familiar with the cartoonishly patrician persona and tone Simon created and polished over many malevolent years as a framer of the national dialogue of culture and art will understand this rude send off. Finally, my guess for this deceased essence of lizardly snark's maintaining the insults, the misogynistic, homophobic, anti-semitic and racist bile over the years is that he  knew he was no Gore Vidal, no Elizabeth Hardwick, no Norman Mailer, no James Baldwin. Flawed though those writers and reviewers  could be in their expressions, they provoked debate, inspired discussion, instigated dissent --all of them , in their best and worst moments forced the engaged reader to think harder on what they'd just read. Even talking about them today can land one in along conversation in which the pondering of what the Muses avail us begins again. Simon, in that regard, was such a routine naysayer that you regarded him like he were a man with a persistent cold who could no stifle a loud, garish cough, or perhaps someone given to chronic flatulence who vented his odious stinkers when he was in the center of a center of a party of attendees cheerfully chatting away.  Once he made his noise and raised his stink, all you could do was wait for to go away and then not think of the sheer worthlessness of his existence from that point on. 


Well, John Simon has left us, and now we may get on with forgetting he was a part of any conservation. 

Saturday, November 2, 2019

a note or two about my mother

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My mom, Maxelle Reed Roberts Burke, was a tough and intelligent and a pretty brilliant woman who didn't sit around waiting for things to happen. She raised the five of us with a firm but loving hand, and did me the favor of telling me the truth about how the world worked. She knew she had a dreamy, half-deaf romantic on her hands in my presence and would caution me against going the whole hog into relationships, and to be prepared for disappointment when things didn't work out to my heart's content. Besides family, she was a community activist at different times, particularly, in a campaign to get Harper Woods a public swimming pool all its own. She was an artist, an interior designer of the first rank along with our Dad, and was the brains and the brilliance behind a successful interior design business she ran with Ed Burke. She was a doer, a questioner, a person who would find out things for herself and did not suffer fools at all. More than once I've seen take apart some poor chump who thought he could "man-splain" some matter to her, whether professional, political or territorial. 

And she was wonderfully hip in ways you didn't expect; time was a family dinner in the 80s and we wound up watching a Dick Clark music award show. Jefferson Starship was one of the artists, with Grace Slick dressed conservatively. Mom shook her head and said that Slick looked like a drunk housewife. Next was punk band X, loud, grainy, distorted, too fast and definitely not hippie music. Mom liked them a lot, bobbing her head in time with the raucous noise X made. Mom was edgy in the smartest ways and had many interests, particularly in people. She had many fiercely loyal friends. What I most remember, though, was that she encouraged my love of books and music, bought me my first harmonica when the guitar lessons yielded no fruit and that she used to read to me when I was very young and would answer my questions when a story didn't make sense. And she had a beautiful voice--she sang often as she made dinner when she thought she was alone listening to the radio. It was a softer side of her that wasn't often on display. 


And did I mention that she had the best laugh in the world, a loud, robust burst of hilarity? My sister Julia inherited that laugh and it makes me happy every time I hear it.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

JOKER: aggravating brilliance

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First, Joker is thematically a blend of two Scorsese movies, Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, something that co-writer and director Todd Phillips readily admits to. He's admired character study films like those from the 70s and the 80s, and it was his intent to do a psychological portrait of a complex and manifestly unhinged comic book villain in the same way. The King of Comedy underpinnings is very apt for this character who has been erasing and reconstructing the separations between comedy, tragedy and outright evil for the better part of eighty years in the comic books. Even with the conspicuous nod to Scorsese's style of giving us a Taxi Driver like a study of the making of a what we would now call homegrown terrorists--contemporary echoes of the Alt-Right neo-Nazis and the lesser antagonisms of Antifa on the left readily come to mind as the story unfolds--Phillips has his own approach in creating the slow, subtle evolution of this title card man. Visually, the movie is something else again, with New York City standing in for the mythic Gotham City--I haven't seen the grit, graffiti and architecture/neighborhood magnificence that is the Big Apple used this marvelously in some time. 

The cast is perfect for the disturbing and violent nature of this film. And get this, although there is no Batman, this is within a world that very probably does or eventually will be populated by DC's costumed heroes. But this is a standalone character study, and what they've is impressive indeed, and even brilliant in a peculiar, discomforting way. I liked it quite a lot. don't think its quite the masterpiece DC fans want it to be, but it is a finely made film that creates a mood and twists it ever so much through the film's length as we see an already on-the-edge character step closer to an abyss and he finally falls in. As Joker/Arthur is in every scene, nearly every shot, I take the story to be a stream of delusions, some situated in what appears to be Arthur's rat-race life, and others that are obviously grandiose, malevolent fantasies. Director and co-writer Todd Phillips did a superb job of managing the "untrustworthy narrator" device, of taking the audience along a path of events where are expectations are eventually unmoored by contradictory incidents. 

Phillips shows a knack throughout Joker of keeping us guessing, revealing unexpected bits of information that genuinely surprise. Phoenix deserves at least an Oscar nomination no less than Heath Ledger did. For the violence and politics, the animus toward the rich in Arthur's fevered perception hasn't an explicitly political bent, by design, I believe. The people, as they are, simply are tired of being crapped on and, like Arthur, are raging violently against the machine. And the film is beautifully, evocatively, amazingly shot--I have not seen New York City photographed this effectively in a motion picture for quite a while. And, of course, there are many who dislike this film intensely. That's the kind of movie they intended to make. I believe. 

There are hundreds of movies that have come out in the last 30 years or so that are insanely more violent than Joker--think of the Die Hard franchise, for example, or virtually Tarantino's entire body of work--but is the film that has people talking, upset, fretting. It was a strategically brilliant move to furnish this tale with a confirmed "reality, a center both writers and the audience can refer back to regain their bearings before going forward to see what develops with some idea of "what's going on". This film is wholly unreliable as a dependable account of what actually happened to this man and this city in this imagined universe, and as more is revealed, that what had been taken for granted is indeed not the case but rather its center opposite, audience reaction, or at least mine, tended toward the antsy, anxious, nervous. Even in its slowness, the film gave you no room to relax. You might consider it analogous to watching a time bomb in a crowded public space, aware that it's going to go off at some time, yet you do nothing, just watching, waiting, become slightly insane with expectation. When it finally does go off and you see the bloody death, destruction, carnage that is the consequence, uncensored, unfiltered, there is no catharsis as, say, a bullet in the skull of a generic bad guy in a Die Hard film would provide. For me it was oh shit, there it goes, here we go, this awful, oh god...

Joker accomplishes that--blurring any finessed connections between fantasy and reality, as Scorsese provided in King of Comedy,a major influence on this film, and having the violence viscerally affect you. It was like getting beaten up in real-time. This is the product of sheer artistry. The violence is pure Guernica.


Tuesday, October 15, 2019

KATE BRAVERMAN, RIP




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Sorry to hear this. Braverman was an especially brilliant prose writer and a powerful lyric poet who could twine together the insane sweep of mythology, feminist, confessional revelations , erotic depositions and the like into a captivating , galvanic roil of language that seemed nothing less than a controlled, emotional explosion , remindful of the classic image from Apocalypse Now when a napalm strike took out a long row of trees in a Vietnamese forest. Really, her "incantatory writing" , as she called it, got the nerve endings flaring.I met her after I'd written a rave review of her book FRANTIC TRANSMISSIONS, a mesmerizing memoir if one has ever been written, something that led to a brief communication and an eventual appearance at the bookshop where I worked at the time. She was a handful to be around, I should say, and as much of a genius she had as writer and poet, there was tangible relief when she left for the evening. All said, Kate Braverman was an amazing writer who deserves a broader readership. There is more I could say about my encounter with Braverman, but lets instead consider my summary judgement on her prickly and hallucinogenic memoir Frantic Transmissions  from 2009:



Image result for Frantic Transmissions to and from Los Angeles: An Accidental Memoir"Frantic Transmissions to and From Los Angeles is a memoir, of sorts, about growing up in Los Angeles, and then the eventual moving away from that famously center-less city. Writing in a high poetic and semiotically engaged style that recalls the best writing of Don DeLillo (Mao ll) and Norman Mailer (Miami and the Seize of Chicago), Braverman deftly defines isolated Los Angeles sprawl and puts you in those cloistered, cul-de-sac'd neighborhoods that you drive by on the freeway or pass on the commuter train, those squalid, dissociated blocks of undifferentiated houses and strip malls and store front churches; the prose gets the personal struggle to escape through any means , through art and rage, and this makes Frantic Transmissions not unlike Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, wherein the prodigal son or daughter deigns to move up and away from a home that cannot keep them, with only raw nerve and the transforming elements of art to guide them.

What Braverman confronts and writes about with a subtly discerning wit is the struggle of defining the place one calls home, and what roles one is obliged to assume as they continually define their space, their refuge. All through this particularly gripping memoir there is the sheer magic and engulfing power of Braverman's writing; I was fortunate to receive an uncorrected proof of Frantic Transmissions a couple of months ago, and I was knocked out by what I beheld. Sentence upon sentence, metaphor upon simile, analogy upon anecdote, this writing is rhythmic and full of stirring music. There is poetry here that does not overwhelm nor over reach; this is an amazing book, and it is one of the best books about life in Los Angeles , quite easily in the ranks of Nathaniel West, Joan Didion, and John Fante. "

Monday, October 14, 2019

HAROLD BLOOM, RIP

Harold Bloom, the Methuselah of American literary criticism, has passed away at the age of 89. Best known , celebrated and berated for his tome The Western Canon, an encyclopedic argument in defense of individual literary genius against the intimidating attacks from fresher and bolder currents in literary thought, Bloom became something a of a one-man cottage industry in his later years, producing a stream about books, some good, some brilliant, more than some so much mush, speaking of Dead White Males and the poems they wrote. I am heavily indebted to his book The Anxiety of Influence, as it gives a subtle and useful dialectical model on how great genius influences great genius that follows through the centuries, with the younger men (and women) writing superbly in another stylistic, spiritual and intellectual direction than the great poet who influenced them, desperately trying to escape the long and looming shadow.

But as that First Great Genius was Shakespeare, a genius who Bloom argued is singularly responsible, in plays and poems, for the creation of what we regard as Modern Man and Modern Literature, the sage who began the whole unstoppable progression of how modern poets would write, escape from the shadow is impossible; The Bard is Present, no matter how much one attempts to be unlike him. You can argue with his sweeping conclusions, but the book I'm thinking of, "Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human is a critical delight. It may be that Bloom is luxuriating in the laziness of a higher caliber. The difference between them is that Bloom has a thesis that he's worked with for decades, a set of subtle arguments crystallized in his landmark book The Anxiety of Influence a brief but trenchant discussion where the Professor posits that Shakespeare is the premiere genius casting a long , indelible shadow across the legions of subsequent genius that arose after his time. Bloom argued that Bard's influence is so pervasive that no poet or other literary artists cannot help but be influenced by him.
Those great geniuses who've emerged after Bard's time have either engaged their influence from him and written great works extending, modifying and altering the system of metaphor Shakespeare changed our collective consciousness with, or there are other geniuses who've emerged over the centuries who, being painfully aware of the Bard's embedded influence on how sentences about human experience have come to be written, write furiously in the other direction, against his style, assumptions and rhetoric, experimenting, taking political risks, deconstructing, inverting, abstracting and defamiliarizing the artful language in ways only a new kind of genius would conceive and execute. But here's the rub: even for those great writers who've made great art with language that artfully contains the human impulse to go beyond mere description of the world and peer at what is behind the veil of enumerated appearances, Shakespeare is present, his aesthetic, his metaphors, his language influencing new writers in one direction or the other.

That is a rather crude summary of Bloom's basic premise and there are dozens of other notions woven through his life's work, but the point is that his a set of ideas that make the ideas tangible and convincing once the initial "aha!" of flashing insight wears off. It's not science, of course, but it is a craft, a profession, this kind of thinking, and what we have in Bloom who has taken his working theory and tested it against new ideas, new writers creating literature in cultures other what is routinely aligned in the Western Canon. Bloom, who defends the existence of the canon and wrote a book on the issue, believes dually that there are permanent genius and masterpieces of Western Literature, as he is a man who has made a career judging books with imposing standards. The standards are not fixed, though, and Bloom further asserts that the Canon is a living thing, like the American Constitution, a category of books and authors that must be continually revised as matters with human existence come to mean something different. All things said, Bloom's career as a critic was a brilliant one, and he was a joy to read and argue with as one passed through the pages of his exception-taking views.